Effingham County Judge Faces Lawsuit

The State Court Judge in Effingham County is facing a lawsuit from a former employee of the court.

The lawsuit against Judge Steve Yekel was filed on June 20 in Effingham County Superior Court by Lisa Crawford. 

Crawford worked as the judicial assistant for Judge Ronnie Thompson during his time as the state court judge in Effingham County, for the interim appointed judge after Thompson was appointed to serve in Superior Court, and briefly upon the appointment of Yekel by Governor Kemp in June 2022. Yekel won a contested primary election in May 2022, but was appointed by Kemp a month later to fill the vacancy and complete the rest of the term of Judge Thompson. 

The lawsuit contends that after the May primary election, Crawford made several attempts to communicate with Yekel to assist with his transition into office and to help his new assistant, Charlene Kessler, as well as host a meet and greet for state court staff. Those communications went unanswered, except for an offer to have dinner at the courthouse for Yekel and state court staff.

Yekel was appointed by Kemp on June 22, 2022 and, according to the lawsuit, Yekel terminated Crawford the next day (June 23) through a third party and the Director of Human Resources.

On June 26, when Crawford turned in her keys and laptop, she received a termination letter which was signed by Yekel. The letter, which speaks to the heart of the lawsuit, accused Crawford of “being engaged in a long-standing conspiracy scheme to provide preferential treatment for Judge Ed Reddick in allowing his DUI clients and many other individuals charged with DUI to obtain dismissal or reductions in their charges.”

The letter conflicted with the county paperwork provided from the exit interview, which outlined Yekel’s reason as “Crawford’s services are no longer needed as a result of Defendant Stephen Yekel bringing in his own staff.”

The lawsuit claims that Yekel, as a member of the State Bar of Georgia, was aware that a judicial assistant has no control over the reduction or dismissal of criminal charges in any case. “The intent of Defendant Stephen Yekel is clear in this case, and Defendant Stephen Yekel acted recklessly as he knows the scope of a judicial assistant’s abilities.”

His actions, the lawsuit says, have caused:

  • Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress – Yekel acted intentionally and recklessly in falsely accusing Crawford of being engaged in a conspiracy scheme.
  • Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress – Yekel owes a duty not to accuse individuals of assisting in a conspiracy scheme, particularly when the allegations are false. In doing so, Yekel damaged and continues to damage Crawford’s reputation.
  • Invasion of Privacy False Light – Yekel publicized the accusations in an attempt to portray Crawford in a particular manner, in addition to portraying Judge Reddick in a negative light.
  • Tortious Interference with Business Relations – Yekel’s conduct was purposeful and with the intent to injure Crawford.

The lawsuit contends that Crawford is entitled to punitive damages and attorney’s fees. It also requests a jury trial. 

Crawford is represented by Savannah attorney Brent Savage of Savage Turner Pinckney Savage & Sprouse. As of July 8, 2024, Yekel had not filed an answer to the suit. 

Yekel lost a contested primary election in the runoff on June 18. His term will continue through the end of the year, at which time former Juvenile Court Judge Melissa Calhoun will be sworn into office.

You can read the lawsuit in its entirety here.

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Jessica Szilagyi

Jessica Szilagyi is Publisher of TGV News. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement and corrections. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia.

Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and co-creator of of the Peabody Award-nominated podcast 'Prison Town.'

Sign up for her weekly newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gzYAZT

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